What is carbon removal?

To fight the climate crisis, we must end our reliance on fossil fuels. This means drastically reducing our greenhouse gases emissions, decarbonising our economies and lives, and removing carbon dioxide (CO2) from the atmosphere. 

How to do that is an ongoing, frequently divisive debate.  

Although they are often known as carbon removals methods, they actually aim to remove CO2 and store it as carbon. Carbon removals can be broadly separated into two groups: those that rely on technology and those that rely on various life forms, including forests.

Regardless of how it is done, removing CO2 must be done in addition to cutting emissions. 

How does carbon removal work?

Carbon removal technology is controversial for several reasons, including the fact that no commercially viable option has been shown to work at scale. Most focus is therefore put on technologies in the testing stage, such as Bioenergy with Carbon Capture and Storage (BECCS). Although carbon removal companies sell BECCS as a positive step in which the huge emissions from biomass burning are captured and stored underground, the reality is very different. Fern’s briefing outlines the main concerns which include that it would do nothing to capture emissions from logging or land use change, that technological barriers remain, and that it would be prohibitively expensive.  

Nature-based carbon removals rely mainly on forests and lands to absorb CO2. Some major polluters therefore promote forest and other land-based carbon offset schemes as a nature-based solution to the climate crisis. These schemes, in which one party continues to pump greenhouse gases into the atmosphere by paying for another party to plant trees, have been widely discredited. They also distract from efforts that should be prioritised such as protecting and restoring natural carbon-capturing ecosystems. For example, natural forests’ ability to sequester huge amounts of CO2 has been backed-up by compelling scientific evidence.

What removes carbon dioxide from the atmosphere?

Healthy, growing forests remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. To allow them to continue playing this role, we must curtail the dominant forestry model in which healthy forests are clearcut. 

The clearcutting method is pervasive across Europe, where it originated, before being exported around the world. 

In the EU, clearcutting has sharply reduced the amount of carbon forests hold. For instance, in 2021 it was revealed that Finland’s land use sector had become a net emitter of carbon dioxide: imperilling the country’s climate commitments, and creating an “outright national emergency” according to one expert. 

In Sweden – where only 3% of forestry doesn’t involve clearcutting – the situation is similarly grim. According to data from Sweden’s Environmental Protection Agency, the net storage of CO2 in the country’s forests plummeted from 30 to 25 million tonnes in 2021 alone. 

Instead of clearcutting forests, we should protect and restore them, so they absorb CO2, rather than emitting it.

This could be done through forest management methods, such as close-to-nature or continuous cover forestry, which benefits people, nature and the climate. It is a forestry method where harvesting is selective and old forest ecosystem and carbon sinks aren’t replaced with a field of new monoculture trees. Read more about close-to-nature forestry.

An analysis of BECCS industries' methodology for certifying industrial carbon removals

This briefing highlights the problems with relying on companies that would benefit from industrial removals projects to create EU methodologies. 

Read the analysis

EU 2040 climate target

In February 2024, the EU released its 2040 climate targets Communication, which proposes to reduce net greenhouse gases (GHG) by 90% compared to 1990 levels. But what does it mean for forests?

Read the briefing

Six problems with BECCS

As part of a larger debate on the role of negative emissions to complement emissions reductions, Bioenergy with Carbon Capture and Storage (BECCS) is being debated amongst European stakeholders.

Read the report


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